From the beginning of Donald Trump's presidency I have rejected the idea that he is, or could become, a dictator such as the world experienced in the 1930s and 1940s, or even a strong man like Erdogan of Turkey or Duterte of the Philippines. I believe this mainly because we live in a completely different age, marked by individual and corporate freedom, and a general decline in political authority in most of the world. The great difficulty the administration has experienced in trying to implement its policies on the issue it cares about most, immigration, illustrates the inertia that characterizes our political life today. Any authoritarian ambitions Trump might have, it seems to me, threaten our nation much less than our chronic inability to make any large-scale policy initiative happen.
Yet as I pondered the President's recent fusillades of tweets, and got a message from a friend who was reading Darkness at Noon, it occurred to me that there is a profound similarity between Trump and Joseph Stalin relating to their world views. Like Trump, Stalin inhabited a mental universe in which he could literally do no wrong. He, and he alone, knew what the Soviet Union and the world needed. He was better at anything he attempted than anyone else. What he did was good by definition, because he had done it. When anything went wrong, enemies must be at work, enemies who needed to be unmasked and dealt with summarily. Stalin's view, one could argue, was a little more sophisticated intellectually than Trump's, since he saw history and political life as a ceaseless class struggle, in which he represented the world's proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Trump has no such ideological scheme. For him, everything is personal.
Stalin was far more dangerous to his nation and the world because he disposed of total power, wielded by secret police without any check upon it at all. Thus, when the collectivization of agriculture led to famine in Ukraine and elsewhere, he could not only claim that the peasants must be hoarding their grain, but also send squads of police and young activists into the countryside to punish their non-existent sins, brutally. When factories failed to meet their quotas the security services would fabricate cases of sabotage. Beginning in 1937 Stalin had hundreds of high-ranking officers executed, as well as many high party officials from the USSR and elsewhere, based on false accusations of treason. In the first half of 1941, he insisted against all evidence that Germany was not going to betray the Nazi-Soviet Pact and attack the USSR, and that reports to the contrary were provocations. Interestingly enough, Stalin seems to have gotten a better grip on reality during the Second World War, but when the war was over, his paranoia returned with a vengeance.
Now let's compare Donald Trump, using just the current week's worth of tweets. Last Monday the President announced, not for the first time, "The Fake and corrupt Media is sooo bad for our Country. The Enemy of the People!" ("Enemy of the people" was a favorite Stalinist phrase.) On the same day he announced that google had "manipulated from 2.6 to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election." On Wednesday, he quoted an observer to the effect that he "is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world." He also accused "the Fake News LameStream Media" of trying to create a recession," but threw in an attack on Chairman Powell of the Federal Reserve: "So far he has called it wrong, and only let us down. He also blasted leading automobile companies who do not want to abandon the tougher pollution standards mandated by California in favor of his own new, much looser ones. On Friday--just days after announcing that he was doing "great" with China--he asked, "who is our gibber enemy, Jay Powell or Chairman X?" He repeatedly claims that he has led the most successful administration, for the time he has served, in American history.
There is, of course, a clinical term for these problems. The Mayo Clinic lists the following symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.
"People with the disorder can:
"Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
"Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
"Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
"Exaggerate achievements and talents
"Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
"Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
"Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
"Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
"Take advantage of others to get what they want
"Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
"Be envious of others and believe others envy them
"Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious
"Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office
"At the same time, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism, and they can:
"Become impatient or angry when they don't receive special treatment
"Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted
"React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior
"Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior
"Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change
"Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection
"Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation."
Because Donald Trump has been obsessed with the idea that he can do the impossible--both as a real estate developer and a politician--he constantly runs afoul of reality. He generally responds with a habit that is not listed among the symptoms of narcissism, but which he shares with both Joseph Stalin and Joseph McCarthy: he blames a vast conspiracy of wicked enemies for everything that goes wrong. He does not have the power to do the kind of harm that Stalin did, although American legal traditions have allowed him to carry out cruel policies towards those who have crossed our border without authorization. But he clearly lacks the emotional and intellectual wherewithal to deal with any really serious situation. A recession, I think, would undoubtedly make his symptoms much worse. In any case, a government based on the idea of rationality needs a more rational person at its head in order to function.